The reading from The Epistle to the Colossians that read on February 3 of this year—the 35th Sunday After Pentecost—is quite remarkable for what it reveals about our Christian Faith. In the unique light of his Christocentric faith and piety, the Apostle Paul was reminding the Colossians—and us through them—of what the newly baptized Christian has “put to death” when embracing the Gospel: namely “what is earthly in you.” And here, “earthly” means what is sinful and passion-ridden. If he had stopped there, he would only have taught us what to avoid, but not what to acquire. The Christian faith would then be a series of prohibitions, rather than a new way of life to embrace. This text from the epistle then fulfills and complements what was heard a week earlier in Colossians 3:4-11. Thus, we were able to follow the essential progression of Saint Paul’s moral/ethical exhortation to the fullness of the “life in Christ.” To bring this remarkable text fully to mind yet again, here is the passage:
“Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” [Colossians 3:12-16, RSV.]
Saint Paul had so thoroughly put on the “mind of Christ,” that in a rather condensed passage, he faithfully and succinctly summarized the teaching of Christ as found in the Gospels – before the Gospels existed in their written form! A few examples will make this clear, for here is what we will eventually find in the written Gospels at the heart of the Lord’s teaching, taught as exhortation to the earlier Christians in the Apostle Paul’s Epistles.
- On “lowliness and meekness
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” [Matthew 11:28-29].
- On “patience”
“And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience” [Luke 8:15].
- On “forgiveness”
“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, now often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’.” [Matthew 18:21-22].
- On “love”
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [John 15:12].
Saint Paul was faithfully “handing over”—literally, “traditioning”—the authentic teaching of Christ in directing pastorally these early Christian communities, such as the one in Colossae that received the Epistle from him that is now part of the Church’s canonical Scriptures. This was a gift of the Holy Spirit, as Christ promised: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” [John 14:26].
It follows that if these characteristics are meant to distinguish a Christian community, then their absence will painfully reveal the weaknesses and failures of that community. Institutional and financial stability may preserve a community, but it will neither “save” it – nor its members! - in the deeper sense of that word. The “deadness” of such a community will eventually become plain to see. For the absence of the greatest Christian virtues – love – is treated harshly in the Scriptures: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” [Revelation 2:4-5].
But perhaps that is “jumping ahead” too quickly and pessimistically. The Lord is patient with our slow progress in love, knowing that it takes time, patience and hard work. The essential need for this binding love, is well-expressed by Saint John Chrysostom, who writes, “Now what Paul wishes to say is that there is no benefit in those things, for all those things fall apart, unless they are done with love. This is the love that binds them all together. Whatever good thing it is that you mention, if love be absent, it is nothing, it melts away. The analogy is like a ship; though its rigging be large, yet if it lacks girding ropes, it is of no service. Or it is similar to a house; if there are no beams, of what use is the house? Think of a body. Though its bones be large, if it lacks ligaments, the bones cannot support the body. In the same way, whatever good our deeds possess will vanish completely if they lack love” [Homilies on Colossians, 8].
And, in the words of a lesser-known contemporary of Saint John, a certain Severian of Galaba, “When love does not lead, there is no completion of what is lacking; but where love is present we abstain from doing evil to one another. Indeed we put our minds in the service of doing good, when we love one another.”
With such a spirit pervading a community, its members will “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness” to the Lord. “The peace of Christ” will rule in the hearts of the faithful, leading to a spirit of thankfulness. Yet, there is not one drop of sentimentality in the words of the Apostle or the Fathers concerning love. They realize that it is a gift coming after much labor and discipline – and dependent upon the grace of God.
Every Christian community/parish has the potential to grow into this love that is ultimately the one true witness to the world of the transformative power of the Gospel. What Saint Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Colossians is as challenging, inspiring and realizable today as then. If not, then the grace of God does not actually exist, or it has abandoned us. The process is long and arduous, but worthy of the Christian vocation.